An organization is no longer limited to a physical structure or proximity; an organization is now limited only by its ability to connect employees and information together.
By far, the number-one business driver for most organizations is being able to connect colleagues across teams and geographies, and this should come as no surprise. Companies of all shapes and sizes have employees based in multiple physical locations and working remotely; this is now commonplace. The ability to keep employees connected is not something that legacy systems and e-mail platforms can do effectively or perhaps at all.
Collaboration isn't new. Employees have collaborated for many years via phone, e-mail, in-person discussions, letters, carrier pigeons, and other media. In fact, collaboration has been around since the first two humans grunted at each other while planning their next kill for sustenance.
If collaboration has already been enabled in other ways, why bother investing in collaboration via emergent collaborative software? Why do organizations need to connect their employees via internal social networks, wikis, or workspaces when they can just e-mail one another or call one another on the phone? Ed Coleman, the CEO of Unisys, put it best when he said, "Sharpening our organization's communications capabilities, creating greater transparency, and improving access to our intellectual assets [people] could only increase our flexibility and responsiveness."
Knowledge Sharing and Transfer
There are two types of knowledge that need to be shared and transferred at organizations: new knowledge and old knowledge. The concepts are exactly what they sound like: Old knowledge refers to knowledge that already exists within the organization, and new knowledge refers to knowledge that is created within the organization, perhaps new ways of doing things.
At your company, if you want to share information or transfer knowledge, how do you do it? Most likely your organization is using a legacy intranet system that basically acts as a massive warehouse for information. Employees attempt to search for and find the information they need. If an employee wants to edit that information (assuming he or she has permission to do so) or update it, it is usually necessary to download it, make the edits, and re-upload it. Even then it becomes a bit tedious for multiple people to collaborate on a document or a piece of information. Chances are, your organization also uses e-mail as a way to share information. E-mail has become the de facto chat messaging program in many companies. Employees send an e-mail and then instantly get a response. That's not e-mail, that's instant messaging, and it needs to stop.
Does this mean that e-mail is evil or that a massive war should be waged against it? Although many would say yes, I say absolutely not.
E-mail was meant for asynchronous communication, and sometimes using it does make sense. However, e-mail shouldn't be used for everything and should be integrated into other existing flows of work.
Even though e-mail was meant for asynchronous communication, what do we do? We stare at our inboxes and our phones, waiting for new messages. In fact, I can't tell you how many times I have watched people walk into poles, walls, and other people because they were checking and responding to e-mails. Technology is supposed to support us and do what we tell it to do. Instead we have the opposite: Technology tells us what to do and when to use it.
Sharing knowledge and information in this way is very inefficient. Using e-mail causes problems with versioning, content duplication, reaching the right people, and locating the proper information later, among a host of other annoying problems.
Emergent collaborative platforms not only allow employees to store and share information; more important, those platforms allow them to collaborate on that information without ever sending an e-mail. Institutional knowledge is something that exists within every organization yet is one of the hardest things to share.
New Opportunities and Ideation
How does your organization come up with new ideas or identify new opportunities? Chances are that specific teams within departments or groups of executives get together to discuss these topics. However, every employee in your organization should be empowered to share his or her ideas and help discover opportunities. Why should this be limited?
Many organizations struggle to empower their employees to develop and create new ideas that they can share within the organization. In effect, the voice of the employee is lost inside many enterprises. Being able to empower the employees to share ideas and opinions in a public way allows an organization as a whole to develop new ideas while exploring potential new opportunities.
Thinking Out Loud
One of the ways people learn from themselves and from others is by thinking out loud. This allows coworkers and colleagues to see the thought process around how certain decisions are made within organizations. I know many of us have that little internal voice we hear when working on something, especially if it's an exciting project. I'm sure many of you often talk to yourselves out loud. You are not the only one who can benefit from that little voice inside your head. I guarantee that you have several colleagues who could learn from you by tapping into your thought process, and you could learn from them. For example, let's say you want to develop a business model for something you are working on. You can share your thought processes publicly as you begin to crank out ideas. Other employees will then be able to provide you with feedback and their own ideas, which you may be able to incorporate into your model. This ability to think out loud was never possible before.
Collective Intelligence and Memory
Lew Platt, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, once said, "If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive." Collective intelligence refers to the ability of an organization to use the wisdom of its employees to make business decisions. This premise means that better, more accurate decisions can be made. Let's say that an executive at your company says that she wants a new product developed in three months. Employees from different departments and business units can share their ideas and feedback on whether this is feasible. Perhaps the marketing team is not able to meet the deadline because of a conference it is planning, or perhaps the product team is already swamped with projects. The same idea can be applied for budget estimates for projects.
Being able to leverage the knowledge of a collective is more accurate and far more powerful than leveraging the knowledge of just a few.
Jacob Morgan, The Collaborative Organization, ©2012, McGraw-Hill Professional; reprinted with permission of the publisher.
For more insights into workplace collaboration, read Fast Company's interview with Dion Hinchcliffe, author of Social Business by Design.
[Image: Flickr user Toffehoff]